Detroit, and the labor movement itself, is transformed forever, when workers sit down at their jobs at the Briggs Manufacturing Company.
Detroit, February 2
AT nine o’clock on Wednesday morning, January 11, a worker at the main tool-and-die-making plant of the Briggs Manufacturing Company was told by his foreman to step into the office and receive a wage cut. Instead, the worker went to the head of his shop committee and then, along with the other workers in his department, from floor to floor, announcing that a strike against wage cuts had been called. There were only about 450 men working in the plant then — but every one of them put away his tools and walked out. So began the first major labor struggle in Detroit since the period immediately fol-lowing the war.
Today there are between 10,000 and 14,000* workers on strike at the four plants of the Briggs Company and at the Murray Manufacturing Company’s plant. The huge Ford fac-tories all over the country have shut down — admittedly because they cannot get bodies from the two factories crippled by the strikes; the Hudson Motor Company has shut down; and the Chrysler Motor Company plant is working on part time when ordinarily it would be operating at the peak of production. The story of these strikes is the story of how manufacturers seeking “low production costs” slashed wages, disregarding or dis-missing the possibility that the victims might revolt, and of how unorganized workers spontaneously struck at a time when, according to the estimate of the Mayor’s Unem-ployment Committee, there were more than 175,000 jobless in Detroit. It is a story of remarkable unity, not only between the strikers and the workers at other plants, but also between the employed and the unemployed. Incidentally, it exposes the class character of the Detroit daily newspapers.
Detroit in the past ten years has won renown among chambers of commerce as an open-shop area second only to Southern California. Advertisements by the various in-dustrial associations boasted of an “open-shop paradise,” while the vested interests were able to prevent effective enforcement of such social legislation as was passed by a reluctant legislature. Nevertheless, during the war period and immediately after, there was a strong Auto Workers’ Union in Detroit. It boasted some 20,000 dues-paying members and was growing rapidly. But anti-red hysteria and the split in the Socialist movement caused the union slowly to lose strength, until in 1925 it was completely bro-ken as the result of an ill-advised strike at the Fisher Body Corporation. The Auto Work-ers’ Union became merely another Communist paper union.
The Detroit workers, in contradiction to the widely advertised Ford gospel of “high wages,” were never really well paid. The automobile industry is a seasonal one. The factories slacken production during the fall months in order to prepare for new yearly models, and the automobile worker had to stretch the “high wages” of eight months to cover the full twelve-month period.